Don Fleming has produced albums by the likes of Sonic Youth, Hole and Teenage Fanclub. He was briefly a member of Dinosaur Jr., played with Richard Hell, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley in Dim Stars and was part of the all-star-punky-Beatles-soundtrack-troupe Backbeat Band that also featured Moore, as well as Dave Grohl, Greg Dulli and Mike Mills. He also fronted '90s alt-rock weirdos Gumball.
But before he became entrenched in the alt-rock scene, Fleming was entrenched in the early punk scene of Washington, D.C. His band Velvet Monkeys played arty, minimalist, funny songs that didn’t exactly fit in with the burgeoning hardcore movement. They used a drum machine during their earliest days, after all. Velvet Monkeys had more in common with locals such as Tru Fax and the Insaniacs , Insect Surfers , Half Japanese (whom Fleming played with for many years) and Chalk Circle. When that last band released an excellent retrospective earlier this year (re-familiarize yourself with Click Track’s interview with the band’s Sharon Cheslow ), part of what made it so great was the authoritative liner notes contributed by Fleming.
Now Velvet Monkeys are the subject of their own reissue, with the band’s 1982 cassette-only debut “Everything Is Right,” finally seeing proper release. The album bears some D.C. hallmarks — it was recorded by Skip Groff at Don Zientara’s Inner Ear Studios — but is decidedly weirder than much of the music with similar credits. (Check the video below for a sample of the band’s funhouse sound.) Fleming currently works as an archivist at the Alan Lomax archives, so he figured he may as well tackle his own material.
“Since I do that stuff and have a bunch of old tape decks and have a great digital converter for doing it, I figured, well, it’s time to start archiving my own stuff. And I have all the tapes. I saved everything,” he said.
In addition to the Velvet Monkeys reissue, Fleming also has a new solo EP. Well, sort of solo. Three of the four songs are collaborations with three of his longtime musical friends — Kim Gordon, Julie Cafritz and R. Stevie Moore — and continues in his long tradition of messy, imperfect outsider rock. After the jump, we have the premiere of his new video for “Torn By the Hands That You Could Not See.” The song features Gordon; the video features lots of fishing trophies.
Fleming talked to Click Track about both of these releases, what he tries to get out of bands when in the studio and how much more of D.C.’s “secret” punk history is out there to be rediscovered.
Between this reissue and the Chalk Circle reissue it seems that we’re starting to get a clearer picture that there was more than just hardcore going on around D.C. in the early ’80s.
Well that was the interesting thing about writing those liner notes for the Chalk Circle — it was just good to revisit that time. I loved it. I was way into all the punk bands, but I was definitely part of that other kind of scene. I was made aware of the D.C. scene through Slickee Boys and Insect Surfers. I was living down in Williamsburg, Va., and I had moved up from the south. And we were playing at William & Mary with a band called Citizen 23 and we opened for the Slickee Boys and Insect Surfers. And I think Skip Groff [owner of Yesterday & Today Records] might have been at one of those shows. That was sort of the other big connection — Skip’s interest in the band brought us to D.C. It was just an amazing musical time there, especially with go-go and everything else going on. Before the punk thing got more codified it was just one of those scenes where people really liked a diverse amount of stuff.
It’s also safe to say your songs were, if not funny, definitely a bit lighter and less serious than a lot of the music that was coming out of D.C. at the time, don’t you think?
I always had a sense of humor which I think came out even more later in the band. We were never really interested in being a punk band. I was only two or three years older than most of that crowd, but in that world it was like being way too old. And also, I had kind of been through the punk thing in ’75, ’76, ’77 and so to me it was, this is cool these guys are getting around to this, but we were more of an evolution beyond it. A lot of the bands that we related to, already it was kind of a post-punk thing. But it all fit together, everyone still played gigs together.
I think playing with Half Japanese had a lot to do with that. It stretched the boundaries. And that Mixed Nuts Don’t Crack LP, I think that really captured the outsider bands that weren’t the punk bands. But that side of the scene did not get as well documented especially in long term. Everyone’s revisiting Teen Idles history. I was really happy to see that Sharon was putting together that Chalk Circle thing. Because they were just great, I’m really happy that it’s out.
Had it been a while since you listened to the Velvet Monkeys stuff? What jumped out at you when you were putting this together?
You know, the thing that struck me the most, listening to the real early stuff in our first year or so, we went through a phase where we just used a drum machine. We were like a three-piece with a drum machine. So I was listening back to these live shows and it was like, ooh, ouch. When it doesn’t work, when we’re trying to get the speed right. And I’m glad we did it but what was striking to me was when we got Jay Spiegel in the band, when he joined at the end of ’81 as the drummer, within the first three shows we were a completely different band. It was just like, Oh my God, we sound really good now! The same songs, but they just didn’t pay off [without the drummer]. Adding him to the band just suddenly — the songs took a whole new step up.
Your new EP is very collaborative. How did all of those songs come about?
I had been working with R. Stevie Moore over the last couple years trying to get some tracks recorded of him. It stalled out a little. He’s moved. But I had done this one song with him and I finally finished it up. Then Kim Gordon had given me some rough guitar tracks she had done. And I edited them together and added all this other stuff to it — instruments and vocals. And Julie Cafritz had written this guitar piece that she had posted on her Facebook page one day. And I said, Julie, let me turn that into a song. And she said, OK. So that’s how I did that one. I just took her guitar piece. In those cases it was very collaborative. Me working off someone else’s sound. The Kim thing sounds like Kim. The Julie thing sounds like Julie. I like that. It’s kind of fun to collaborate, even if we’re not in the same room. The fourth one is one that I had done on my own.
Working on projects involving old and new music at the same time have you noticed any changes in your own creative process?
Not a lot. When I’m producing other bands I’m more meticulous about the results. I’ve realized this for many years and I see that I’m still the same way. When I’m doing my own thing I really like to have mistakes in it. I really like it to be first-take. And that’s going back to the Half Japanese mentality. That’s where the heart is. That’s where the passion is. If you do the same thing 10 times in a row it doesn’t get better. It just gets worse. So I find I’m a creature of those habits, still.
I’m sure not all the bands you produced liked to adhere to that.
I usually pushed those limits with them. Often with bands I would do things like after we had finally tracked what we had planned as our last song, even a band that’s never improvised at all I’d be like, look I’ve got eight minutes of tape here, just go in there and start something in E. And sometimes we’d get something really cool out of it.
Again, it goes back to the Half Jap thing of recording with Jad [Fair, Half Japanese frontman] and literally having no idea what key a song is going to be in. We’d be like, “OK, Jad, what’s the next one like?” And he says, “Fast!” And that’s it. You just go. And it works. Sometimes you stumble but often you soar. I try to get that out of bands in the studio. Not give them too much of a comfort zone. You’ve got to be a little bit on edge to have that translate to the recording so it doesn’t just sound like a homogenized version of your song.
So how much more of this “other” side of the D.C. punk scene is out there?
There were a lot of bands. There was Tru Fax and the Insaniacs. They were a band that had a lot of impact on other bands. They were the ones who filmed a lot of that stuff that you’ve seen — the early footage of Minor Threat or Teen Idles. There’s the Nurses, Howard Wuelfing’s band. He was there from the ’70s, he was playing in an early version of the Slickee Boys and he had a band called the Nurses that really fit in to that quirky pop kind of thing, sort of like what we were doing.
There was a band that for a while was called R.E.M. that for obvious reasons changed their name. They changed it to Egoslavia , which I don’t think was the best name choice ever. And they were really interesting. We did some shows with them and they were more of the Bush Tetras type of New York funk-pop type thing. The main guitarist from that band as Greg Strzempka and he went on to start a band called Raging Slab after that.
Then there was Nuclear Crayons . I still think they’re just one of the best. There is a whole history there that maybe still needs to be told in fuller details.